Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne (2009)
Chapter 3. BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Back in 2004, the notion of a 2008 Obama quest for the U.S. presidency would have been termed "improbable" at best. Many Americans would have scoffed, "He'll never get past his name!" The last name that sounds like "Osama;" that middle name, Hussein. Not to mention his race. Yet by 2008, Barack Obama was widely hailed as "a world-transforming, redemptive figure"i with a strong bid for the White House, whose victory might help heal a world long divided between white-black, North-South, rich-poor. How did Barack Obama manage to break down barriers that could have served as insurmountable obstacles to many other aspiring leaders?
One of the answers lies in Obama's distinguished ability to use communication to bring people together despite their differences and to establish common ground. The ability to unite people, build camaraderie, and promote a sense of shared goals is vital for every highly successful leader. Obama's skill in this area is particularly deep, as manifested by the magnitude of his political achievements. His success in claiming the 2008 Democratic nomination for president ranks as exceptional by way of world history. In the U.S. context alone, it remains remarkable how Obama has managed to unite such a highly diverse coalition, which includes white-collar workers, blue-collar works, students, soccer moms, and entrepreneurs of all races and ages. Obama has put forth the message many times that, "this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It is about the past versus the future."ii But how has he been able to cast aside the old divisions? This chapter explores the specific communication practices that have enabled Barack Obama to successfully tear down barriers and forge ties to many disparate groups.
Barack Obama's highly effective communication practices have allowed him to achieve a high level of "transcendence." Obama has alluded to this himself, as he has insisted on many occasions that once people get to know him, they usually "come around." And how do people "get to know him"? Oration. Speeches. Public remarks. Because Obama's communication is so highly effective, his support has grown exponentially.
Several specific communication practices help account for Obama's success in inspiring a very diverse set of people to band together, focusing not on their differences but on their commonalities. There are valuable lessons to be learned as we examine how Obama acknowledges differences but focuses on shared values, dreams, histories, and experiences; and the way he peppers his remarks with words that resonate, pulling from a powerful lexicon of political rhetoric, shared principles, biblical truths, and words of celebrated American icons. Below, we explore Obama's effective communication techniques.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Barack Obama has achieved tremendous success in shattering conventional wisdom and breaking historic barriers. In 2004, Obama pointed to several sources of his success, explaining why many people considered him an attractive candidate and convention speaker. He noted the way he had won the Illinois U.S. senate primary election months earlier. "We defied conventional wisdom about where votes come from because the assumption is, whites won't vote for blacks, or suburban folks won't vote for city people, or downstate won't vote for upstate … We were able to put together a coalition that said, you know, people are willing to give anybody a shot if they're speaking to them in a way that makes sense."iii Obama also reiterated subsequently that people "are more interested in the message than the color of the messenger."iv
But many leaders have failed in efforts to build such broad coalitions in the past. Obama's success involved more than good luck. He employs specific communication practices that have helped him to tear down obstacles and forge ties. One such practice: Obama openly acknowledges sources of potential discomfort early on. When he begins his public remarks, he often seems to act according to the principle, "If there's an elephant in the room, acknowledge it."
For Obama, the elephants in the room often include his race, his "funny name," and the fact that his father comes from a developing part of the world and once lived in a hut. Given the history of race in the United States, this background might have presented an insurmountable obstacle for leaders less skilled than Obama.
Rather than ignoring these issues of potential discomfort, Obama is adept at acknowledging them head-on, often with touches of humor. He once joked, for instance, that all too often people found his name confusing and accidentally called him by other, more familiar names like "Alabama" or "Yo mama."v Obama also referred to himself as "a skinny kid with a funny name." As he acknowledged at the 2004 convention, "Let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely." Obama's comfort in acknowledging the elephants in a room eases the comfort of those to whom he speaks. This, in turn, sets him free to redirect attention skillfully to areas of common ground.
Obama shows that as a public speaker, it is useful to try to acknowledge sources of potential discomfort early on and in a forthright manner. Doing so can aid a quest to move beyond issues that divide in order to focus on efforts to build ties and strengthen common ground.
STRESSING COMMON DREAMS AND VALUES
As Obama adeptly recasts the dialogue to stress commonalities rather than differences, he focuses on key aspects such as shared dreams and values. Consider this example:
[I] finally took my first trip to his tiny village in Kenya and asked my grandmother if there was anything left from [my father]. She opened a trunk and took out a stack of letters, which she handed to me.
There were more than thirty of them, all handwritten by my father, all addressed to colleges and universities across America, all filled with the hope of a young man who dreamed of more for his life. And his prayer was answered when he was brought over to study in this country.vi [Emphases provided]
In these remarks, Obama focuses our attention on the hope of a young man and the prayers that were answered—things to which average Americans can relate. The aspects of his father's experience that would serve to separate Obama from most Americans—the hut and Kenya—fade in our mind as Obama steers our attention to the areas of commonality. Aspiring leaders can learn much from this. When preparing remarks, consider this: What common ground elements can you bring to the fore to establish strong ties to your audience? How can you skillfully direct attention to areas of common ground rather than keep the audience focused on elements that divide?
We can also learn much from Obama's skill in establishing common ground among diverse sets of people as we observe how he focuses away from traditional societal divisions—class, race, ethnicity, region and religion—and focuses toward shared values and dreams. On March 18,2004, the New York Times quoted Obama as saying, "I have an unusual name and an exotic background, but my values are essentially American values."vii Obama promotes this theme vigorously and uses shared values—such as strong work ethic, belief in the American dream, and desire for education—as the basis for relating to a broad array of the American public. Consider his remarks at the Associate Press annual luncheon in Washington, D.C., in April 2008:
It doesn't matter if they're Democrats or Republicans; whether they're from the smallest towns or the biggest cities; whether they hunt or they don't; whether they go to church, or temple, or mosque, or not. We may come from different places and have different stories, but we share common hopes and one very American dream.
That is the dream I am running to help restore in this election. If I get the chance, that is what I'll be talking about from now until November. That is the choice that I'll offer the American people—four more years of what we had for the last eight, or fundamental change in Washington.
People may be bitter about their leaders and the state of our politics, but beneath that they are hopeful about what's possible in America. That's why they leave their homes on their day off, or their jobs after a long day of work, and travel—sometimes for miles, sometimes in the bitter cold—to attend a rally or a town hall meeting held by Senator Clinton, or Senator McCain, or myself. Because they believe that we can change things. Because they believe in that dream.
I know something about that dream. I wasn't born into a lot of money. I was raised by a single mother with the help of my grandparents, who grew up in small-town Kansas, went to school on the GI Bill, and bought their home through an FHA loan. My mother had to use food stamps at one point, but she still made sure that, through scholarships, I got a chance to go to some of the best schools around, which helped me get into some of the best colleges around, which gave me loans that Michelle and I just finished paying not all that many years ago.
In other words, my story is a quintessentially American story. It's the same story that has made this country a beacon for the world—a story of struggle and sacrifice on the part of my forebearers and a story of overcoming great odds. I carry that story with me each and every day. It's why I wake up every day and do this, and it's why I continue to hold such hope for the future of a country where the dreams of its people have always been possible.viii
In his remarks above, Obama again joins himself firmly to the diverse audience he is addressing as he draws attention to their shared American dream. Similarly, in the example below, Obama solidifies his ties to a diverse set of Americans as he describes his family's pursuit of the American dream and their commitment to commendable values—hard work and dedication:
This is the country that gave my grandfather a chance to go to college on the GI Bill when he came home from World War II; a country that gave him and my grandmother the chance to buy their first home with a loan from the government.
This is the country that made it possible for my mother—a single parent who had to go on food stamps at one point—to send my sister and me to the best schools in the country on scholarships.
This is the country that allowed my father-in-law—a city worker at a South Side water filtration plant—to provide for his wife and two children on a single salary. This is a man who was diagnosed at age thirty with multiple sclerosis—who relied on a walker to get himself to work. And yet, every day he went, and he labored, and he sent my wife and her brother to one of the best colleges in the nation. It was a job that didn't just give him a paycheck, but a sense of dignity and self-worth. It was an America that didn't just reward wealth, but the work and the workers who created it.ix
As political commentator Jamal Simmons noted on June 3,2008,x Obama has succeeded in presenting his life story as a "uniquely American story … Like Bill Clinton's story, Ronald Reagan's story, Harry Truman's story…." The New York Times concurred on July 28,2004, indicating that Obama tells "a classic American story of immigration, hope, striving and opportunity." Given his excellent communication practices, Obama has portrayed his life's tale as that of an American with humble beginnings making his way to extraordinary success. This has helped him connect with audiences; his life story is viewed as a classic story and it has endeared Obama to millions of Americans.
DRAWING ATTENTION TO SHARED HISTORY
Obama's emphasis on common dreams—particularly the American dream—and shared values has endeared him to millions of Americans. When possible, Obama also stresses shared history as a way of relating to audiences. Think about this example:
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one.xi[Emphases provided]
While Obama acknowledges that his father was a Kenyan, he casts his father's story as a typical American immigrant story characterized by great hope for a better future, education, hard work, and the attainment of the American dream. Obama's references to shared history—the Depression, Patton's army and World War II, and the bomber assembly line at Fort Leaven-worth—help him do this convincingly. These familiar historical references help Obama establish himself as being "just like any other American." He successfully directs the conversation away from his "funny" name and unorthodox upbringing to the many ties that bind. In doing so, Obama projects himself as firmly a part of the "we," part of the same team as most Americans, striving for the same goals.
Consider another example, in which the specific details Obama provides help form connections with a diverse audience:
[W]hat I learned much later is that part of what made it possible for [my father to come to the United States] was an effort by the young senator from Massachusetts at the time, John F. Kennedy, and by a grant from the Kennedy Foundation to help Kenyan students pay for travel. So it is partly because of their generosity that my father came to this country, and because he did, I stand before you today—inspired by America's past, filled with hope for America's future, and determined to do my part in writing our next great chapter.xii
In these comments, Obama uses an outstanding choice of detail to tie himself firmly to the American audience; he refers to one of the most famous American political families, taps into patriotic sentiments as he refers to the "generosity" of an American, and projects himself as "inspired by America's past" while also representing its future.
Similarly, Obama drew attention to shared history as a means of building links to an audience at the Kennedy endorsement event in Washington, D.C., in January 2008. He commented:
Today isn't just about politics for me. It's personal. I was too young to remember John Kennedy, and I was just a child when Robert Kennedy ran for president. But in the stories I heard growing up, I saw how my grandparents and mother spoke about them and about that period in our nation's life—as a time of great hope and achievement. And I think my own sense of what's possible in this country comes in part from what they said America was like in the days of John and Robert Kennedy.
I believe that's true for millions of Americans. I've seen it in offices in this city where portraits of John and Robert hang on office walls or collections of their speeches sit on bookshelves. And I've seen it in my travels all across this country. Because no matter where I go or who I talk to, one thing I can say for certain is that the dream has never died.
The dream lives on in the older folks I meet who remember what America once was and know what America can be once again. It lives on in the young people who've only seen John or Robert Kennedy on TV, but are ready to answer their call.
It lives on in those Americans who refuse to be deterred by the scale of the challenges we face, who know, as President Kennedy said at this university, that "no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."
And it lives on in those Americans—young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian—who are tired of a politics that divide us and want to recapture the sense of common purpose that we had when John Kennedy was president.
That is the dream we hold in our hearts. That is the kind of leadership we need in this country. And that is the kind of leadership I intend to offer as president.xiii [Emphases provided]
The familiar themes above have enabled Obama to break down barriers and build bridges. In garnering political support, he has cast aside traditional divisions and laid in their place other bases for uniting—shared values and shared history—that have enabled him to motivate unprecedented numbers of people.
ILLUMINATING SHARED EXPERIENCES
Another important lesson of Obama's outstanding communication style is how he leverages shared experiences to build rapport and a strong sense of camaraderie. As we have seen, when addressing an audience, Obama searches out the common ground and deliberately draws attention to it. At times, this common ground may be limited to tangential experiences. But Obama manages to leverage even tangential experiences, using them to forge a foundation upon which to relate to an audience. Consider the example below, when Obama spoke before a group of working women. Clearly, Obama is not a working woman! But he took time to consider how he could relate to the group. The relevant questions he seemed to consider beforehand included: What is the basis of our common experiences? How can I elaborate on those common experiences—even if they are only tangential—in establishing a firm connection to the audience? Obama creates a firm connection magnificently as he uses his experience as the son of a working woman and as the husband of a working woman to illuminate common ground:
It's great to be back in New Mexico and to have this opportunity to discuss some of the challenges that working women are facing. Because I would not be standing before you today as a candidate for president of the United States if it weren't for working women.
I am here because of my mother, a single mom who put herself through school, followed her passion for helping others and raised my sister and me to believe that in America there are no barriers to success if you're willing to work for it.
I am here because of my grandmother, who helped raised me. She worked during World War II on a bomber assembly line—she was Rosie the Riveter. Then, even though she never got more than a high school diploma, she worked her way up from her start as a secretary at a bank and ended up being the financial rock for our entire family when I was growing up.
And I am here because of my wife Michelle, the rock of the Obama family, who worked her way up from modest roots on the South Side of Chicago, and who has juggled jobs and parenting with more skill and grace than anyone I know. Now Michelle and I want our two daughters to grow up in an America where they have the freedom and opportunity to live their dreams and raise their own families.xiv
In another example, Obama gives a speech before a metropolitan group in Florida. Obama calculated again how he could relate to the audience. What sorts of experiences or histories did they share? How could he elaborate in a way that would create a lucid picture of himself as a candidate who understands their situation, their challenges, their needs? Although the group is based in Miami, Florida, Obama pulls effectively from his experience as an organizer in Chicago, Illinois, establishing common ground.
This is something of a homecoming for me. Because while I stand here today as a candidate for president of the United States, I will never forget that the most important experience in my life came when I was doing what you do each day—working at the local level to bring about change in our communities.
As some of you may know, after college, I went to work with a group of churches as a community organizer in Chicago so I could help lift up neighborhoods that were struggling after the local steel plants closed. And it taught me a fundamental truth that I carry with me to this day—that in this country, change comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up.xv
For leaders aspiring to diminish perceived areas of division and to expand common ground, Obama's successes demonstrate the value of taking time to identify the many bases that might serve as common ground areas. Do your listeners share common histories? Common values? Common experiences? Common goals? Shine a light on the areas of commonalities in order to build bridges and unite disparate groups of people.
EMPLOYING WORDS THAT RESONATE:
THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL LEXICON
We have seen above how Obama skillfully creates a sense of "we-ness," making himself and the audience a part of the "we" as he elaborates on their common values, dreams, histories, and experiences. Buttressing this, Obama peppers his remarks with words that resonate with his audiences. At times, he pulls those appropriate words from the American political lexicon, drawing on our shared, cherished sociopolitical values. At times, he draws on valued principles and biblical truths. At other times, he refers to the words of American iconic figures in order to underscore his message.
Consider this example, when Obama responds to the fiery and divisive comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which threatened to undercut Obama's assertions that he stood for a united America. Obama chose to draw on America's rich history of political rhetoric, using words from the Declaration of Independence that resonated with the audience. Referring to the Declaration of Independence was akin to pouring buckets full of water on a fire, quenching its flames. In the single opening sentence below, Obama affirmed his patriotism and communicated his unwavering support of the ideals of unity:
"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."
Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part—through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign—to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together—unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction—towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. [Emphases added.]
In this speech, Obama roots himself firmly as a part of the "we" and conveys that the treasured historic principles that guided the United States continue forward and will lead us into a secure future.
USING WORDS THAT RESONATE—
Another practice that allows Obama to shatter barriers and construct ties effectively is his tendency to reference biblical words. Obama, a Christian whose faith is dear to him, often sprinkles his public remarks with words that evoke faith among other Christians: faith in things not seen; I am my brother's keeper. Many people cherish these biblical truths and principles. For broad segments of the American population, Obama's use of such language establishes a high level of connectedness. The verses are familiar to many ears and resonate in many hearts. Referring to them helps to build bridges. Just consider this excerpt from Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address:
For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga.
A belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief—I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper—that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.xvi [Emphasis provided]
Similarly, in his seminal "A More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia in March 2008, Obama's biblical references served him well:
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more and nothing less than what all the world's great religions demand—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."xvii [Emphases provided]
LEVERAGING OTHER PEOPLE'S WORDS
Drawing on the words of lauded American icons has also helped Barack Obama establish linkages to audiences. The icons he chooses are often well known to audiences, and their words are sometimes familiar. Referring to the words of carefully chosen icons or leaders helps establish an emotional connection to the audience. Consider this excerpt from Obama's January 2008 speech:
[O]n the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, at a time when many were still doubtful about the possibilities of change, a time when those in the black community mistrusted themselves, and at times mistrusted each other, King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still speaks to us today:
"Unity is the great need of the hour" is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.
What Dr. King understood is that if just one person chose to walk instead of ride the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved. But maybe if a few more walked, the foundation might start to shake. If a few more women were willing to do what Rosa Parks had done, maybe the cracks would start to show. If teenagers took freedom rides from North to South, maybe a few bricks would come loose. Maybe if white folks marched because they had come to understand that their freedom too was at stake in the impending battle, the wall would begin to sway. And if enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Unity is the great need of the hour—the great need of this hour.xviii
The poetry of King's words, along with his iconic stature, helps to yield an emotional impact for many listeners. By drawing on such words, Obama has on many occasions related to audiences with greater effectiveness. In another example below, Obama references, with great effect, Martin Luther King Jr.'s eloquent words, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice":
Through his faith, courage, and wisdom, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved an entire nation. He preached the gospel of brotherhood; of equality and justice. That's the cause for which he lived—and for which he died forty years ago today …
[I] think it's worth reflecting on what Dr. King was doing in Memphis, when he stepped onto that motel balcony on his way out for dinner….
And what he was doing was standing up for struggling sanitation workers. For years, these workers had served their city without complaint, picking up other people's trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them "walking buzzards," and, in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.
… [O]n the eve of his death, Dr. King gave a sermon in Memphis about what the movement there meant to him and to America. And in tones that would prove eerily prophetic, Dr. King said that despite the threats he'd received, he didn't fear any man, because he had been there when Birmingham aroused the conscience of this nation. And he'd been there to see the students stand up for freedom by sitting in at lunch counters. And he'd been there in Memphis when it was dark enough to see the stars, to see the community coming together around a common purpose. So Dr. King had been to the mountaintop. He had seen the Promised Land. And while he knew somewhere deep in his bones that he would not get there with us, he knew that we would get there.
He knew it because he had seen that Americans have "the capacity," as he said that night, "to project the 'I' into the 'thou.'" To recognize that no matter what the color of our skin, no matter what faith we practice, no matter how much money we have, no matter whether we are sanitation workers or United States senators, we all have a stake in one another, we are our brother's keeper, we are our sister's keeper, and "either we go up together, or we go down together."
And when he was killed the following day, it left a wound on the soul of our nation that has yet to fully heal…. That is why the great need of this hour is much the same as it was when Dr. King delivered his sermon in Memphis. We have to recognize that while we each have a different past, we all share the same hopes for the future—that we'll be able to find a job that pays a decent wage, that there will be affordable health care when we get sick, that we'll be able to send our kids to college, and that after a lifetime of hard work we'll be able to retire with security. They're common hopes, modest dreams. And they're at the heart of the struggle for freedom, dignity, and humanity that Dr. King began, and that it is our task to complete.
You know, Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But what he also knew was that it doesn't bend on its own. It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.
So on this day of all days let's each do our part to bend that arc.
Let's bend that arc toward justice.
Let's bend that arc toward opportunity.
Let's bend that arc toward prosperity for all.
And if we can do that and march together—as one nation and one people—then we won't just be keeping faith with what Dr. King lived and died for. We'll be making real the words of Amos that he invoked so often, and "let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."xix [Emphases provided.]
Obama's highly effective communication practices enable him to unite a broad range of disparate groups within American society, resulting in one of the largest and most significant grassroots political movements in recent years. For leaders aspiring to steer attention away from factors that divide listeners toward factors that unite them, Obama demonstrates that words that resonate—reflecting common values, principles, beliefs, tradition and history—can be used to build a greater sense of unity.
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED—PRACTICES FOR
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Leaders have much to learn from the way Barack Obama breaks down barriers and establishes common ground among diverse sets of people. Obama has shown he can transcend traditional divisions of race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion and region. He is adept at uniting disparate people, building camaraderie and establishing a sense of shared goals. To do this, we have seen the importance of acknowledging "elephants in the room." Acknowledging potential issues of discomfort helps to ease tensions and enables leaders to re-focus attention on areas of common ground. Leaders should seek to be forthright in acknowledging areas of potential discomfort early on and with forthrightness, and should proceed to focus away from sources of division toward sources of commonalities. The aim is to recast the dialogue, steering attention in ways that promote a sense that listeners are on the same team, striving for the same aims.
When illuminating common ground, it is helpful to reference common history, common values and common experiences. It is also a best practice to employ words that resonate—well-chosen words reflecting time-tested principles, socio-political values, biblical truth or a cherished lexicon of political rhetoric. Effective use of "other people's words" can also play a role. Leaders can focus when needed on iconic figures, those we all admire, incorporating references to their words wisely and using those references to create a connection, a sense of "we"-ness. When establishing common ground, referring to details about shared experiences, even tangential experiences, can also prove useful. When constructing public pronouncements, therefore, effective leaders assess the basis of their shared experiences with their audiences, identifying ways to highlight those commonalities to deepen a sense of connection, enhancing the power of their words.